It was here in Vienna where I learned my first lesson about loss.
This was the late ‘70’s, meaning World War II was over thirty years hidden in the past. In Vienna, however, the war still loomed, omnipresent. I couldn’t walk the streets without passing graying and legless men in wheelchairs, others who limped along on their one prosthetic leg, those whose empty shirtsleeves brushed up against my arm when we stood next to each other on the streetcars.
Neither could I miss all the women. They were bent to nearly half my height and hobbled along on legs bowed from hardship and malnutrition, their hands clutching canes like birds of prey grip a bough. How many times must I have trailed only inches behind them, studying their hunched shoulders, staring at their hulking orthopedic shoes, with their one sole inches thicker than the other, black blocks of cement with ties over the arches.
And so very many of them, women and men, wore black armbands.
That thin strip of fabric worn around the sleeve of a heavy wool loden green coat was, as my Austrian friends had to explain to me, a vital token of the times. It said: “Ich bin Kriegs Trauernde”.
I am a war mourner.
As an adolescent, I found the armband and mourners fascinating – mythical, nearly – but also hard to truly understand. While the sight of them struck pity and something akin to respect in me, those mourners also sobered me. Those bands wrapped around arms chilled me more than the absent arms did.
Furthermore, they seemed a little morbid.
And they made the ultimate loss, death, so . . . I’m not sure, so public. Who, I wondered, if touched by death would want to advertise it? Invite conversation? Drawn attention?
And. . .still? After thirty years?
Thirty years. To my fourteen-year-old mind it was a literal eternity.
I would come to know Vienna intimately over the subsequent decade when I would return to live there. On the next occasion I was a university student. Then I lived privately with an Austrian family. Then I served as a full-time missionary for the LDS church. Then as a newlywed, I was back in Vienna with my husband while he and I were faculty members, German instructors, with a foreign study group.
With each visit, I saw fewer vestiges of war, and always fewer armbands. Their last surviving wearers had finally died themselves, I suspected, rejoining elsewhere those beloveds for whom they’d mourned and worn the armbands in the first place and kept wearing them perhaps (this thought disturbed me) until their last breath.
It’s doubtful I could have ever foreseen during that first trip to Austria just how intimately I would one day become acquainted with Vienna. And it’s certain I could have never imagined how intimately acquainted I would one day become with the black armband.
This week I’ve been back in Vienna. It’s hard to believe that over thirty years have passed since my teens and that year that gave me my first lessons on loss. It seems a whole life has passed.
And indeed, one life has.
So maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve been instinctively albeit surreptitiously hunting everywhere for armbands.
There are none, of course.
But how I wish there were.
I wish there were mourner’s armbands this week in particular because I’ve come here in mourning. I’m mourning specifically the 27 lives taken savagely just a week ago in the Newtown slaughter. And I’m mourning generally all the tragic deaths to which this scorching mark in history points my heart. There are so many.
There are, God knows, far too many.
As it happens, this week I’m also mourning with my family the tragic death of our oldest son. It has been exactly five years and five months since that date, and Vienna seemed like the right place to mark that passing that is so sacred to us.
I want, in this post, to recreate for you as best as possible the hours I’ve spent walking through the streets and shops and crowds and contours of Vienna. I want you to see what my mourner’s eyes have seen as we’ve walked and talked hours on end as a family, wearing, as it sometimes feels to me, thin black ribbons around the fullness of our hearts.
You’ll see in my pictures that much of Vienna is grand, opulent, scintillating.
What is not visible, though, unless you know her well, is that she’s also one tough city. She’s known centuries of suffering. She’s a survivor.
In World War II alone, she survived over fifty bomb raids. Tens of thousands of her homes were left as craters. Her magnificent opera house was all but decimated…
… And her most recognizable landmark, St. Stephansdom, barely missed annihilation in the war, and its Gothic roof collapsed when, during the Russian occupation, fire raging out of control ignited the structure.
There are smaller, less visible signs of damage. If you’re looking for them, you’ll find pockmarks of shrapnel and artillery in the facades of buildings, haunting fingerprints of a shadowy, diabolical giant.
And there are losses buried far beneath the layer of time I’m strolling you through because she’s a city that’s survived death many times over. Before world wars there were plagues, sieges, floods, occupations, uprisings and eruptions. So that today, street after street, there is grandeur shoulder-to-shoulder with loss.
Artistic and architectural beauty from ashes.
Along with my images of Vienna, what follows are just a few of the hundreds of quotes I’ve compiled in a copious anthology, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them.
In offering both images and words, I’m inviting you to look carefully at what it means to be mortal, to be part of the flawed and mysterious panorama of humanity, this procession we all share that wears the wounds of life’s everyday warfare. I hope you’ll not step away or step past this very quickly. In stepping slowly and close to the subject you might be lucky enough to feel a strange absence brush up against you, and like an empty shirtsleeve, it might incite a tenderness towards your own and all of mankind’s many visible and invisible losses.
On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn with Them
All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence…It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything it is for knowledge on this important subject.
–Joseph Smith, in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; 6:50.)
What do you say to someone who is suffering?
Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.
But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
—Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 34
The English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described [the] rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.” In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was “to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.”
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, 60
Our American culture boasts many virtues and several strong suits, but grieving—collectively or individually—isn’t one of them. Unlike older societies, we have few formal grieving rituals in place to guide us. So, we try to tackle grief in our typical American way—as if it’s a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured, an unnatural, machine-gumming breakdown that needs to be fixed, ASAP. . . .
Perhaps more phobic about suffering than any society in history, Americans tend to start the clock ticking early in “managing” grief. While solicitous and caring of the newly bereaved, we encourage heartbroken mates and parents to medicate themselves so they can “keep it together” through the funeral.
This ignores the fact that wailing and keening and “losing it” are a pretty accurate rendering of what humans inside feel like when someone we love dies or leaves us. But, in our culture, public wailing and keening are considered bad forms; they are seen as unwelcome reminders of pathology among “healthy” people. . ..
Even the most devastating loss—that of a child by a parent—seems to carry an unwritten statute of limitations on grief.
—Stephanie Salter, “The myth of managing grief,” San Francisco Chronicle
Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has “got over it.” But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again…
How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss until this moment?” the same leg cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.
They say “The coward dies many times”; so does the beloved.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 52–53, 56–57
In a few weeks she will have been dead five years.
Five years since the doctor said that the patient has been unable to get enough oxygen through the vent for at least an hour now.
Five years since Gerry and I left her in the ICU overlooking the river at New York Cornell.
I can now afford to think about her.
I no longer cry when I hear her name.
I no longer imagine the transporter being called to take her to the morgue after we left the ICU.
Yet I still need her with me.
–Joan Didion, Blue Nights, 150–151
When I ask [author Joan Didion] if this grief [at her daughter’ death] is different from what she has so carefully described in her book [about her husband’s death], she says, “It is and it isn’t. I recognize a lot of the things I’m going through. Like, I lose my temper a lot and I become unhinged and kind of hysterical. Like if someone calls to update their Rolodex.” She laughs. “I recognize little things like that as being part of the process, so they’re not quite as frightening. But on the other hand, it’s a whole different level of loss.” She stops and stares at the table again. “This is the part I don’t want to talk about.” She takes off her glasses, sets them down, and her eyes are flooded with tears. …
–Jonathan Van Meter, interview with Joan Didion; “When Everything Changes,” New York Books, October 2, 2005
[A bereaved mother enumerates the things her young adult’s son’s untimely death has taught her:]
1) that having “learned” does not take away the pain or provide an adequate reason for the death; 2) that love is stronger than death—there is a communion of spirits that is real and reaches across death; 3) that the failure to reach out can cause great suffering; 4) that God is real and more than an idea; 5) that fear keeps us from doing so much good in terms of being gifts to others; 6) the limitations of a psychology that ignores spirituality; 7) the importance of humility…
My faith has deepened … but it has not been an easy road. It has deepened because of profound experiences of connections with God and with my son.
—Kay Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 180
If the internal griefs of every man could be read, written on his forehead, how many who now excite envy would appear to be the objects of pity?
“Blessings may break from stone,” wrote George McKay Brown. “Who knows how.” Grief is such a stone. It gives much to the living, slows time that one might find a way to a different relationship with the dead. It fractures time to bring into awareness what is being mourned and why…
“Sometimes I think that the search for suffering and the remembrance of suffering are the only means we have to put ourselves in touch with the whole human condition,” wrote Graham Greene. Grief is at the heart of the human condition. Much is lost with death, but not everything. Life is not let loose of lightly, nor is love. There is grace in death. There is life.
—Kay Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same,181–82
The way we resolve our grief is a process. Timing is everything. What is inappropriate at one time is a lifeline at another. At the beginning, it is necessary for the one who has suffered loss to admit the pain and feel it deeply. No one can ever resolve grief without doing this. To deny that the experience of death is the experience of the absence of God is a pious lie that disqualifies anything else one might say. But once one admits the reality of the emptiness and despair and meaninglessness of death, one is also ready to admit that there is something else present in the darkness as well. Something that at first seems only a hint of light on the horizon, but in time becomes a warm glow bathing everything: There is also love; there are also happy memories and gratitude; there is also God. A simplistic life based on despair is no more adequate to the human condition than a simplistic life based on rose-colored theology. In the end, only contact with the living God satisfies.
—Jefferey J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One,ed. Bush, 129